A Sustainable Investment in Sustainability

by William Hooke, AMS Policy Program Director, from the AMS project, Living on the Real World
Early in the AMS annual meeting this past week, I happened to run into Tim Killeen, the NSF Assistant Director for Geosciences. He barely said hello before asking me, “Bill, have you heard about SEES?”
I hesitated, and we both agreed I’d flunked his test. “SEES,” he went on, “stands for Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability.” He added, “This investment area spans all the NSF directorates, and will amount to about ten percent of our budget. It ought to be the topic of conversation here at the Annual Meeting, and yet there’s virtually nothing about it anywhere in the conferences and the sessions.”
!!!! Ten percent of NSF’s annual budget – some $7B/year – is real money.
Thankfully, Tim graciously went on to let AMS and me off the hook. “We could have done more to publicize this at the NSF,” he said. “But please let people know about the dear colleague letter which is still on our NSF website.”
The letter merits careful reading in its entirety, but here’s an excerpt:
“The SEES Portfolio will support research and education projects that span all eleven NSF Directorates and Offices, including:

  • research at the energy-environment-society nexus
  • novel energy production, harvesting, storage, transmission, and distribution technologies, and their intelligent control that minimizes environmental impact and corresponding adoption, socioeconomic, and policy issues
  • innovative computational science and engineering methods and systems for monitoring, understanding and optimizing life-cycle energy costs and carbon footprints of natural, social and built systems (including IT systems themselves)
  • data analysis, modeling, simulation, visualization, and intelligent decision-making facilitated by advanced computation to understand impacts of climate change and to analyze mitigation strategies
  • study of societal factors such as vulnerability and resilience, and sensitivity to regional change
  • short and long term research enabled by a new generation of experimental and observational networks
  • support for interdisciplinary education/learning science research, development, and professional capacity-building related to sustainability science and engineering
  • creation of research and education partnerships around forefront developments in sustainability science and engineering, both nationally and internationally
  • development of the workforce required to understand the complexities of environmental, energy, and societal sustainability
  • engaging the public to understand issues in sustainability and energy
  • development of the cyberinfrastructure and research instrumentation needed to enable sustainability science and engineering
  • support of the physical, cyber, and human infrastructure necessary to achieve SEES goals”

Probably you’d agree that it would be harder to prove that your work, whatever it is, doesn’t fit under this umbrella, than that it does. And that said, it’s quite probable that many of you have already responded to requests-for-proposals under these auspices. [In fact, that may well be true of the American Meteorological Society also; in my conversation with Tim, I just wasn’t quite quick enough to connect the dots.…]
We can make a forecast. This articulation of a sustainability investment area won’t prove to be a one-off. More likely, it signals the start, or next step, in a series, doesn’t it? Increasingly, as society grows more concerned about the Earth as resource, victim, and threat, we’re going to see further calls for research proposals in these areas and along these lines. We can and should thank Tim and other NSF leadership for their vision here.